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How Does Snorting or Smoking Cocaine Affect Your System?

Cocaine is a powerful stimulant drug that’s frequently used as a recreational drug. In the 1980s and 1990s, cocaine use posed a severe threat to public health. Cocaine use led to widespread substance use disorders and even caused fatal overdoses. 

As the opioid epidemic has taken center stage in the past few decades, cocaine still remains a threat. In fact, polydrug use that involves cocaine and opioids may be even more dangerous because the drugs counteract symptoms that could act as warning signs of overdose. 

Cocaine can make its way into the body through multiple means. It can be insufflated, which is also called snorting. It can also be smoked and even injected. These different methods are called means of administration, which is a term that’s used to describe the way all active drugs enter your body. But does it even matter how the drug gets into your body?

Learn more about the effects of snorting and smoking cocaine and its effects on your body.

How Does Cocaine Work?

Cocaine is in a class of drugs called central nervous system stimulants that work to increase activity in your brain and body. As a stimulant, cocaine increases alertness, energy levels, and wakefulness. It’s used for its ability to give the user a euphoric feeling of excitement and power. 

Cocaine can also affect the autonomic nervous system, which is a specific part of your nervous system that controls automatic and unconscious things like breathing, heart rate, body temperature, and blood pressure. People that take cocaine often experience higher body temperatures and faster heart rates.

Dopamine works in the brain by blocking the reuptake of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. These naturally occurring chemicals are closely tied to mood, energy levels, and motivation. Reuptake is a process in which chemical messengers that have been released are reabsorbed into the nerve cell that sent it. This removes them from your system and stops their effects. Reuptake recycles these chemicals and prevents them from binding excessively. Cocaine blocks reuptake and prevents these chemicals from being removed. They then bind to more receptors and create a more intense, exciting effect than they would normally. 

These feel-good chemicals are also associated with the reward system of the brain, which is the part of the brain that’s affected by addiction. Your brain gets used to the release of rewarding chemicals that are associated with cocaine and encourages you to repeat cocaine use. 

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The Effects of Snorting Cocaine

Snorting is probably the means of administration that’s most commonly associated with cocaine. If a character in a movie or on TV is taking the drug, they’re probably snorting it. Snorting may seem like a strange way to introduce something into your body, but it’s a common practice that’s been used for centuries. 

When it comes to introducing drugs into your body, the first major hurdle is getting them into your bloodstream. Your skin is designed to resist permeation, which means it’s hard to get substances through the skin and into your blood. However, scientists have found ways to do it with things like nicotine patches. 

You can also eat substances, which can be absorbed by your stomach and intestines. This works with some things like alcohol and tablets, but your stomach is designed to break things down, and many drugs aren’t able to make it into the blood before being broken down to their less active metabolites. For instance, if you take cocaine by mouth, only about 33% of what you take makes it into your bloodstream. 

The amount of a drug that makes it into your bloodstream via a specific route of administration is called bioavailability. Different drugs may have different levels of success in getting into your bloodstream when a crystalized, powdered form of it is snorted. However, cocaine is fairly effective at being absorbed into the blood when it enters your nasal passages; so, its bioavailability when snorted is 60 to 80%

When it gets into your bloodstream and reaches your brain, it starts to take effect. Snorting takes longer to take effect than other means of administration, but the effects of the drug tend to last longer. Snorting cocaine can also cause some unique side effects that may not occur with other means of administration. Snorting can increase your risk of nasal and sinus infections simply from introducing a foreign substance into your nose. 

Nasal passages are delicate, and they may be damaged when snorting cocaine. Your nose and nasal passageways are also connected to your respiratory system, which can be damaged to the point where they no longer work properly. This can lead to trouble breathing and other long term health concerns. 

The Effects of Smoking Cocaine

Cocaine can’t be smoked in its powdered crystalline form. Cocaine doesn’t easily burn, which means there’s no smoke to be inhaled. To smoke cocaine, cocaine has to be converted to its freebase form, which is commonly called crack. Crack is cocaine with an additive like baking soda that lowers its melting point and makes it easier to burn. 

In terms of their effects, crack, and powder cocaine are essentially the same drug. The only difference is in how you can take it. Bioavailability is also slightly diminished in smoked cocaine, which has to do with heating. Some of the drug is lost when it’s burned. 

When cocaine is smoked, it’s rapidly absorbed and takes effect much faster than snorted cocaine. Smoking crack causes an intense, short-lived high, and euphoric effects wear off quickly. For this reason, crack may encourage binging. Crack causes a powerful high, which is quickly followed by an uncomfortable comedown. As the effects wear off, the excited, energized euphoria turns to fatigue, depression, and physical discomfort. 

Cocaine on a scale

To maintain the high, people may take multiple doses in a row, which increases the risk of overdose. The short but intense high could also make crack more addictive since it encourages repeated use. However, both drugs are extremely addictive, and comparing their relative addictiveness is a subject of debate. 

Why All Cocaine Use Is Risky

Cocaine misuse is dangerous in whatever form it’s taken in. Both can lead to chemical dependence, addiction, and overdose. High doses of cocaine can overexcite the nervous system, which can lead to seizures, overheating, heart attacks, or strokes. 

Cocaine abuse can also cause long-term health problems. Chronic cocaine use can increase your risk of stroke, respiratory problems, and heart disease. Cocaine can also lead to cognitive issues like reduced attention. It may also cause anhedonia, or the inability to experience pleasure except through cocaine use. 

Cocaine is a relatively expensive drug, and a substance use problem can cause serious financial instability. Addiction, in general, can lead to several consequences in your life, including in your relationships, health, finances, and legal status.

Sources

American Psychiatric Association. (2017, January). What Is Addiction? Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/addiction/what-is-addiction

Jeffcoat, A. R. (1989). Cocaine disposition in humans after intravenous injection, nasal insufflation (snorting), or smoking. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2565204/

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, June 11). What are the short-term effects of cocaine use? Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/cocaine/what-are-short-term-effects-cocaine-use

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, July). Cocaine. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/cocaine

Psychology Today. (n.d.). Dopamine. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/dopamine

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